All posts made in Aug. 2003:

(I'm at the Hypertext 03 conference in Nottingham this week, keeping rough notes online.)

Consider that land property originated in agriculture, or rather around the same time: investment for crops, building winter villages. Which concept then allows differential housing, static factories for large goods, hordes. What next? The ultimate expression of owned space: the city - where public space has to be labelled as public - reaches such a fine grain because of transaction fluidity that it essentially becomes unowned again. Because of mass production - or rather: standards, fungible interfaces (Fordism not for objects but for the interfaces of objects), low production costs even of short runs (digital printing today, nanotech printing tomorrow) - owning an object becomes divorced from possessing it: you possess the pointer to an interface. The ability to travel, the ability to consume media. We build a system of non-rivalrous goods layered on top of a scarcity-based, rivalrous market; we build an absence of property rights on top of property. Coffin hotels, MP3s, bank accounts hold pointers to money not money itself. The imperatives now are to enable pointers to the physical world (the semiotcracy), handles for pointers that hook into our existing abilities (supersenses), develop a language to talk about affordances/interfaces instead of objects (biology instead of the conduit metaphor). We live in a single world of property, scarcity and rivalrous goods; the future will be N worlds that exist on all points along these axes. The struggles between the physical world and cyberspace, layered on it, and our understanding of it are just the first step.

On Friday, I swam London. Jumped on buses, dodged knots of people, whenever I needed to cross traffic the green light was there. It was pinball. My route was not directed but constraints based, and suddenly the city became not a thing that swallowed me, but a thing I was embedded in, a part of: I rode it, was swept by it, propelled by it, rised up to and travelled the Fermi surface of London, the conducting layer, and the obstructing crystal became invisible to me.

Augmented reality is so hung up on visual. Food instead. After dinner the waiter brings a cream pie as the bill; I eat my share. Yum!

"By rights I shouldn't be giving you this story, as I'm dead and my feathery, brown chest is stone cold. Don't tell!" (Today's new Upsideclown is one of mine.) "I'd found a postcard tucked into a book in the RSL stacks, right down in the basement. Postmarked 1956, addressed to L---, with what looked like a pirate's treasure map drawn on it. Labelled, in copperplate, 'The Starling Variable'. An illustration of a starling on the front, pen and ink". Read The Starling Variable.

The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency [via As Above]. And Kevan is abolutely remarkable. He's only gone and written a zombie infection simulation: "With only a few simple rules for zombies and humans (zombies are slow and lurch towards other moving objects; humans are fast and turn around if they see a zombie), a nice amount of drama and advice emerges - the effectiveness of the zombie horde, the vulnerability of a panicked human crowd, the grim effectiveness of alleyway pincer movements, and - best of all - the importance of looking around corners". See for yourself.

The key feature of the conduit metaphor (Heckler & Coch one, two) is the separation of things-that-resolve-into-meaning from things-that-perform-resolution.

It doesn't say anything about how the resolution takes place, about whether meaning is entirely contained, about how things-that-perform-resolution come to do it in similar ways, about what else is taken into account in negotiation of meaning (Grice's implicature, etc [via sylloge post]): it's transport layer.

Is this separation valid? (It's non-obvious, and all other features can be challenges. But this dichotomy is fundamental to it.)

It's coherent with metaphors that say meaning is containable in vessels; that meaning, once contained, can be handled independently of the transport mechanism; that things-that-resolve-into-meaning are passive and act as stimulus on things-that-perform-resolution (people); that communication between people is always mediated by passive things-that-resolve-into-meaning.

Within limits these are useful; employing them colours our understanding of other systems.

The industrial mindset, in which responsibility is "contained" and orders (to be resolved into actions) are given; Fordism and the production line in which objects (and people) are bodies given a stimulus for a predictable response (self-fulfilling, this one); the Semantic Web in which meaning is wholly contained; nouns/verb, nodes/arc, objects/method, commodity/value, signified/signifier; computer technology, and the telegraph itself -- all of these share the conduit metaphor.

I feel the conduit metaphor is misleading for the sort of systems we're trying to deal with. This leads into [my notes on]:

  1. Conduit metaphor as folk systems theory which is all about how this ties together
  2. Distance, shape and expectations which is searching for an alternative vocabulary (see also my post Distance is the half-life of causality)

For a more ranty version, read what my dictionary of the intertextual fabric is about. For a much, much better conception of what shape means in the software domain, read about emit/accept in biological computing at ETCON 2002, or far better is Jaron Lanier's Phenotropics [Powerpoint]. Mindblowing.

(On the subject of where word meaning comes from: understanding is having our expectation-shape filled; encoding information is just altering our extended body shape in meaning-space, just as in physical space we learn to manipulate our vocal cord muscles without thinking as we grow up. The method of learning these meanings is the same method as any expectation is "learned". On whether I think the Chinese Room produces intelligence (explanation)... I think it's the same question as M&M patterns being conscious (or not). They're like the intertextual dictionary that only uses the semantic content of words. Just as the dictionary also need order, implicature, an understanding of the author and the reader, context in all its forms (pragmatics?), consciousness as we have it is a climax state system and makes use of not just physical properties, but the property of where it's situated in the abstraction layers, of social context, of continuity in time/space and so on. If there's another way of having consciousness, fine, but it won't be the same as this one. Simularly, I'd say the one way to simulate the universe correctly is with the universe itself. So no solipsism either. On whether this is all nonsense: Of course. But read the Phenotropics presentation anyway, it's spot on.)

Hypertext 03 is later this month in Nottingham (see the programme). Ted Nelson's keynote looks interesting: "Science is supposedly about reality, not about tradition, conventions or constructs. Yet computer science seems to me wrongly centered around two traditional, conventional constructs: the simulation of hierarchy and the simulation of paper. [...] Hierarchy is wrong and insufficiently general". I'll be there.

Now Samorost is an utterly beautiful interactive thing. Ambient game? Go play. Lovely. Very Park.

Vocal cords... watch and listen to a movie of them working. Shit, and we're impressed when a baby sits up. What about this? Every time you make a noise! That little pink hinge, holding that thing out just so, to modulate that sound, then your tongue moving in your mouth, and your mouth itself changing shape. Wow. Constantly! Then sounds join to get words (whatever words are), and suddenly we're in the area of recombinant grammars. Oh, and air vibrations, and ears, and pattern recognition and meaning and implicature, music!, rhetoric!, and this all being refolded into genes+context. (From outside there's the babble of people talking in a restaurant, food and wine and vocal cords vibrating the tiniest, most constrained and precise sign language there ever was, the block of air in my street a shimmering, shivering foam of talking.)

Via Simon Roberts in email:

"The meaning of a word is not a matter of fact (which is why an argument about it can't be settled by recourse to the dictionary), and it is not a matter of opinion (which is why an argument about it mustn't be unsettled by a refusal to have recourse to the dictionary). The meaning of a word is a human agreement, created within society but incapable of having meaning except to and through individuals. We may find evidence for such agreements, but we can't find proof of them. A language is a body of agreements. Some lapse; others change; new ways form".

(From The State of Language (Ricks).)

"The meaning of a word isn't something that you get from a dictionary, but from how the word is used and the context in which it's put. Everything in our lives is defined in this way. A sound is meaningful because it is different from every other sound. Language becomes a play of differences...

"Context is everything, but context is limitless. At a certain point we agree that we don't need any more context, that I get what you're saying. But there's nothing finally to prevent someone else from saying, Hey, there's a whole larger situation out there that completely changes everything, he's really joking, there are all these other motivations, he's really lying. There's always the possibility that new contextual things can come in.

"In this world today, we are always learning more information about situations. This kind of anxiety is the postmodern condition."

(From an interview with Samuel Delany, on his use of the golden, and why its lack of completeness makes people uneasy.)

On the subject of radio (see yesterday's post), Clay Shirky mailed in with a good way of putting it: "radio allows you to do other things while listening to it, so that a third thing, a thing that comes from the combination of what's on the radio and what's happening in your mind, can occur". And there it is.

If you only read one mind-blowing, prescient essay today on the architecture of the internet, read Karma Vertigo: or Considering The Excessive Responsibilities Placed On Us By The Dawn Of The Information Infrastructure (1994) by Jaron Lanier [via Heckler & Coch]. On democracy, the formative nature of the network design and how abstraction layers are calcified in, and - wonderfully - a vision of the net that encourages a version of the free market that helps everyone, rather than merely interating the old one (this new market emerging from Ted Nelson's ideas). Wow:

"Architecture, alas, is so much more than politics, that it is almost impossible to capture its importance. Architecture will also be a foundation for the language, society, and culture of the future. At first, the design of the network will seem less important than the content that is moved over it. This will be true only for the first generation or two of users. After that it will become apparent that the network's design is like genetic material out of which our culture unfolds, an intimate and pervasive presence, a thing, like the structure of our spoken language, whose influence is too great to be isolated or measured".

Read more of Jaron Lanier's writings.

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: "A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. Compiled originally by Captain Grose". Utterly filthy. Puts Roger's Profanisaurus to shame.

Gaviotas [via Abstract Dynamics]... a 200 person managed tropical society. "'When we import solutions from the US or Europe,' said Lugari, founder of Gaviotas, 'we also import their problems'" -- so they develop their own (unpatented) technology, from purifying water to generating electricity with windmills. Papanek would be proud.

The future may lie in radio not in television. Two things. Firstly, radio is more in keeping with the sort of media people are consuming today. Contrast tele and film which make a claim to seamlessly replace reality, with books (for example) which can be immersive without having to do so: a book which is twice as long or the typography of which has twice the resolution isn't twice as good. People are increasingly interacting with that latter class: email, IM, www, phone... radio (music, food, gardening, architecture). Add to that the fact that radio sits easily with simultaneous browsing, email, chatting. Secondly, it is indeed key that the technology under radio is changing. Or rather, that radio is deterritorializing from its physical device roots, becoming divorced from the player, and in fact becoming divorced from listening synchronous with broadcast time also (timeshifted listening). You can see this same pattern in music: music is moving away from the storage media, and recommendations away from your immediate social network (uh, your friends) -- you can now discover artists by recommendations from strangers! Radio is becoming audio on demand, coherent with the new media and how we're living our lives. (One of the difficulties with this point of view is that's it's very easy to make bad radio - television without the pictures - as opposed to radio which sets a pace for you (faster or slower), carries you somewhere else, makes you think and imagine things you didn't think you could. Open County is one of my favourites.)

Eigenradio [via muxway] analyses radio stations, pulls out the most statistically significant frequencies, and plays them back at you. Wicked. "The best of the New Music, distilled and de-correlated". (Listen to it for a bit, and every so often you get a burst of recognisable drum loop, or at a longer frequency and hear something more classical. Occassional patterns, solidity, strata, in the noise. So many things like this.)

Exploring Cornell's Digital Library of Kinematics [via wood s lot] (the image library is as beautiful as any cathedral, watching the machines move they're as graceful as any animal) you get a sense of how the engineers must have felt they'd found the secret of how we move/how the universe works. Graceful movements, minimum friction and effort, the correctness of the form: just by choosing appropriate fixed points and shape. What I like most about mechanisms like this is their casual ease at object orientation. The interfaces are the handle and the rod, the internal complexity is hidden. But if you want to extract extra movement (transformed transforms) from the innards of the machinery, you can do that too. Object orientation now (and by that I also mean anything to with the conduit metaphor: the industrial mindset and Fordism, nouns/verbs, cause/effect, declarations of meaning) is cack-handed. APIs are grafted onto the form. The handle, on the other hand, is part of the machine, not an abstraction of it. How on earth did we lose this?

Rather than explain what's on my mind, I wrote a Dictionary of the Intertextual Fabric. (A quick glimpse at last month's notes will show how confused I'm feeling at the moment.)

I'm watching a building site, and in particular a 360 excavator with a long arm. This is a yellow JCB vehicle on two large caterpillar tracks with a cab that can rotate all the way around, and a big scoop on an articulated arm at the front. The arm is curiously prehensile. It's filling a truck with rubble, and the excavator uses the back, curved side of the scoop to smooth down the heap before the truck drives off. Then the JCB has to move down a steep slope to pick up a bit more, so it steadies itself with the back of the scoop again, holding its arm out infront and bracing against the ground.

The portacabins - the temporary site headquarters - in the background are four deep and two high, and the whole block lifted two stories above the ground with girders. It was erected in a day or two, with a couple more days to lay quick foundations. It makes me laugh to see people using their specialities to make their jobs easier. I heard the other day that SMS was a hack by Ericsson engineers so they could communicate while they were working on the infrastructure without interrupting voice calls. The first thing the Mozilla opensource project did was write a web-based bugtracking system.

The light touch of experts. The unconscious ease with which they wield these extra limbs. It's beautiful. Out of respect I have to refer to the JCB and its driver as a single unit, man-machine. My sister the civil engineer tells me that these same excavators can turn on the spot by pivoting on the shovel, and one with claws on the end of the arm can pick up a glass milkbottle without breaking it.

Ben Oldroyd is breeding anarchist bees. There's a particular genetic mutation in honeybees that switches the drones from policing and destroying one another's eggs, to a situation in which egg-laying becomes more common and is not punished*. Usually the queen is promiscuous: you can calculate the genetic relationship coefficients and from there understand why the hive works as it does (why the workers will sacrifice themselves for the whole, why worker eggs are eaten). But once this change occurs (perhaps the drones can't tell the difference between the anarchist eggs and the queen's eggs), the initial conditions have changed and the solutions to the game theory equations change... the dynamic of the hive changes. It becomes an anarchist collective. It makes me wonder how stable our own ethics are [to small perturbations]. Are they the best available iterative solution to the game theory equations that describe society, physics, our behaviour? If so, shouldn't we see the same ethics arising in any system with the same basic rules, just like we see the Fibonacci sequence in the skin of a pineapple and rabbit populations over time?

There's more about the honeybees in Anarchist Bees in The Economist, where I seem to remember it saying Oldroyd's team had pinned the mutation down to a single gene, called alien. (If anyone has a subscription and can send me the full text, I'd be very grateful. [Update. Someone did. Thanks!])

(* Originally I'd said the mutation makes the drones fertile. This isn't true, honeybee drones are fertile anyway, and the cause is somewhat different. Thanks Mark Ward for the correction, and the email on honeybees and anarchy from his experience.)

Gregory Bateson is one of my favourite authors -- an anthropologist who took his knowledge of systems to help found cybernetics. They threw god out of the garden [via Heckler & Coch] are some of his letters on religion, worth a read if only because of their clarity in describing big ideas. However, what I really like is this line: "Norbert Wiener once described ants as 'cheap mass-produced articles'".

Rules for Local Distinctiveness. ("REVEAL the past! Decay is an important process. Don't tidy things up so much that the layers of history and reclamation by nature are obliterated. Let continuity show".) Part of Common Ground, "distinguished by the linking of nature with culture, focussing upon the positive investment people can make in their own localities, championing popular democratic involvement, and by inspiring celebration as a starting point for action to improve the quality of our everyday places".

There are four different timescales used... civil time, GPS time, atomic time, and they're growing apart: What time is it? Well, no one knows for sure [via 2lmc spool]. Nice image: "Since the debate began, the slowing of the Earth has become less pronounced and no leap seconds should be needed for several years. Experts are unsure exactly why this has happened - a number of factors can have short-term influences on its rotation, including earthquakes and even wind blowing on mountains".